A Dragon In A Pigeonhole: Gender and Stereotyping At Work

Hilary Devey’s Women at the Top

Hilary Devey at home in the Palace of Diocletian (the one off the A34, past Asda)

Despite not being a huge fan of this Dragon’s Den business celeb, I was  gripped by her documentary  about inequality in employment between the genders (see iPlayer link above for those in the UK).

There was nothing very new in it, but it was great to see a “queen bee” (as a powerful leading woman in a male-dominated business gets called these days) being jolted out of her previous simplistic take on gender in the workplace – basically the “I managed it, why can’t they?” approach. Interesting in particular to hear the success of changing gender awareness and gender balance within the ranks at P&G. Fascinating to hear the laundry team there used to be all male.

There are some areas that will always be male dominated, one suspects – but some are just that way because no one has bothered challenging received wisdom. More than a decade ago I carried out some qual work on a gender issue in the British Army and interviewed soldiers right across the ranks. I can’t share the detailed insights on here, fascinating though they were. But it is a matter of public record that there are women who can pass the physical tests for entry into the infantry – there are some superb and very tough female athletes in the Army. The barriers to the Army accepting women into the teeth arms are not physical but to do with group dynamics, culture and psychology – no less real for that, but not what you might have expected.

Even a pair of tiny red trousers can be the subject of a bitter battle of the sexes

The infantry is perhaps exceptional because its decisions have life and death consequences, but Hilary Devey’s warehouse – like the vast majority of warehouses for that matter – was all male also for no good physical reason, just a cultural one. Women have not been encouraged to think they could train as forklift truck drivers and so there are few out there, though the myth of men being safer vehicle drivers was exploded some time ago. There’s no obvious reason other than the work culture to exclude women from training up for that kind of job. It persists because of deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes about job roles and gender.

To come back to the Army again, it’s notable that, despite the continuing exclusion of women from the infantry, the Army has been a place where traditional prejudice about gender capabilities has also been challenged and in places overturned. Women take their place alongside the men in all parts of the Army except the infantry and tank corps. For example, female forward operations officers in the Royal Artillery serve actually ahead of the front line.

I wasn’t surprised to see in Ms Devey’s programme that the team exercise experiment showed a mixed gender team out-performing single gender teams. That’s been my experience of workplace teams too. I’m a big believer in not just mixed gender teams but mixed personality type too. In fact, as much of a mix as possible. In my old team – a mixed gender team also – we all did a Myers-Briggs personality evaluation as part of a team exercise. It really helped us all understand each others’ strengths and weaknesses, how to complement each other effectively and for us managers, how to get the best out of everyone.

It’s uncomfortable to be pigeonholed. This is what happened when they put Alan Sugar in charge of Celebrity Squares.

Everyone hates being gender stereotyped, but there’s an even deeper mistake in thinking here – the tendency to put people into categories not based on knowledge or observation of the person, but on assumptions. I’ve even seen it happen (actually, many times over) within qualitative research agencies, which is the last place you should expect to find it. That’s a sign of how endemic this habit of pigeonholing is, not just in the work place but in society as a whole. I think we’ll look back on the business culture of our era in 50 years’ time and see a hugely inefficient use of our “human capital” (not to mention the way we have let the relationship between work,  family life and the needs of society become increasingly dysfunctional and unbalanced.)

Understanding each other in more depth isn’t such an easy thing – but it couldn’t be more important, whether it’s a business needing to understand its customers, government understanding the needs of citizens, or just people trying to have good relationships with family and friends. It all starts with letting people talk for themselves – genuinely – and listening and thinking when they do.

For businesses, this is where really doing qualitative research in depth and then ingesting the insights from it can bring a breakthrough and a new way of thinking. The businesses that are able to get inside the heads of their customers – and their own employees – are the ones that get ahead of the game. They have an inside track on innovating smartly, because (1) on customers, they enter the process thinking about customer needs and not their own processes and (2) on employees, managers understand each employee as a whole person (especially what they are like outside work) and, through this, how to make the workplace somewhere that the talented parts of them emerge, take a look around and come out to play.

I’ll watch the rest of the series with interest.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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